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Theater Preview: Wex Brings Annie Dorsen’s Acclaimed “Yesterday Tomorrow” to Columbus

Richard Sanford Richard Sanford Theater Preview: Wex Brings Annie Dorsen’s Acclaimed “Yesterday Tomorrow” to ColumbusPhotos by Alexandre Schub
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Annie Dorsen uses technology and innovative techniques to reshape the contemporary theatrical landscape, and she’s done it without ever sacrificing the core humanity that connects us and keeps us coming back to her work. From co-creating and serving as the original director of the Tony-winning Passing Strange, through awards including a Guggenheim Award, a MacArthur Fellowship, and presentations from Brussels to Paris to Brooklyn, her sui generis work leaves audiences stunned and talking.  

With Yesterday Tomorrow, her work finally comes to town under the auspices of the Wexner Center. I spoke with Dorsen by phone. Advance press calls this the third in her series of algorithmic theater, so I had to ask what that meant. 

“I’d already made one project, a piece called Hello Hi There. It premiered in 2010 and it was a piece for a Chatterbot, kind of to improvise new conversation at every comment,” Dorsen said. “After that piece, people started referring to my work as ‘robot theater work.’ So, you get a lot of, ‘How’s it going with your robots?’ Or people sort of thought of it as a multimedia performance – like, you know, it was a normal piece of theater, but there was video involved.” 

That started her search for a name.

“I thought I should try to find a way to describe what I was doing that would at least, if nothing else, make people ask me ‘What’s that?’ as opposed to sort of misunderstanding what the project is about,” Dorsen explained.

She works with computer programmers to create algorithms for each of these pieces. That process led to the light-bulb moment of combining the two songs threading Yesterday Tomorrow. 

“I was talking with a computer programmer friend of mine, asking him to explain genetic algorithms to me, a classic algorithm that more or less follows the model inspired by the process of natural selection,” Dorsen said. “As he’s explaining this, I said, ‘Oh, so you could use a genetic algorithm maybe to start in one place and end up somewhere else? Like you could turn one thing into another, like you could turn ‘Yesterday’ into ‘Tomorrow.’ It just popped out of my mouth; it was those two pieces right from the start.

“One of the features [of this kind of work] is that there’s different output at every corner [with the same code]. Yesterday Tomorrow, for example, at every performance the piece starts with [The Beatles] song ‘Yesterday’ and ends with ‘Tomorrow’ [from the musical Annie]. And in between, it’s writing a new musical path between [the existing melodic material of] those two songs. There’re billions, if not trillions, of possible paths that could be taken. And at a given performance you get to hear one of them.” 

Photo by Alexandre Schub

The piece doesn’t simply shuffle the existing notes of those American classics like a cut up; it writes new notes in the spaces it bridges. That created a high bar for singers, as Dorsen explained.

“I worked with [legendary opera singer] Jessye Norman at Carnegie Hall on a piece called Tell Your Mama, but that was not actually helpful for me in finding vocalists because we needed such a specific set of skills – quite conversant with contemporary vocal music, because these melodies are daunting if you’re not used to strange or atonal music and really good sight-reading abilities,” Dorsen said. “These skills aren’t called upon very often [together] but if you’ve got [them], it’s a lot of fun.”

An extensive auditioning process led her to mezzo Hai-Ting Chinn (mezzo), Jeffrey Gavett (baritone), and Natalie Raybould (soprano), who premiered the piece in 2015 at the COIL Festival and will reprise the roles at the Wexner Center. 

The dazzling technical aspects of Yesterday Tomorrow–the actors and the audience see the computer-generated score on projection screens in real time–work with the rich thematic material.

“I was thinking about the different kinds of time that we experience as human beings,” Dorsen said. “There’s the time of our memory and our expectation of our mental narrative time. There’s also the lived time of the hour-long performance, sort of the ‘real time’ of the piece. There’s musical time which is broken into beats and meters. There’s computational time – once [we] tell the computer to generate a new script for the show, it doesn’t take it very long to do that, but the human experience of that script [takes a long time]. The computational time is much faster than human cognition can go.”  

Within those elements of time, Dorsen said, “I was thinking about the lyrics of the songs and the notion [that] here we are in this present moment, always a little bit trapped between anticipation and regret. We’re somehow in this limbo between our past and our future. The past, in a way, is somehow known. Maybe we made it up in our minds, but we have an idea, at least, of what we think it was. [For] the future, we have an imagination, a fantasy, of what we hope it will be. And the present is the most mysterious of the three even though, paradoxically, it’s where we spend all our time.”  

Yesterday Tomorrow reinforces that element of unlocking the mystery of the present between these poles of anticipation and regret with the actors’ inability to rely on rehearsal or memory. They’re forced to live in the moment, confronted by a new, twisting score in front of them and us.  

Is there anyone among us who can’t use a reminder of necessity to live in and with the moment and the ways we try to navigate the present as we grapple with our past and cling to some hope of the future? Yesterday Tomorrow poses these questions in ways Columbus hasn’t seen on a stage yet. 

Yesterday Tomorrow runs from March 20 through March 22 with performances at 8:00 p.m. Friday, 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. Saturday, and 2:00 p.m. Sunday. For tickets and more info, visit wexarts.org.

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